Tucson Sky Much Healthier Than 30 Years Ago

December 21, 2012

First the bad news. Tucson is growing only at a moderate pace, its economy is stuck in neutral, any rivalry with its big brother to the north only a figment of someone’s imagination.

Now the good news. It has the clean sky, relatively speaking, to show for it.

Not every day in the Old Pueblo is pristine. A slight haze frequently dusts the valley. On the worst days, a heavier, yellower haze shrouds downtown.

Nonetheless, one can pretty much count on visibility that extends miles and miles, from one side of the valley to the other and beyond. The mountains stand out in sharp relief.

The impressive thing is that it wasn’t always so. Naturally newcomers wouldn’t know this, and many old-timers don’t seem to remember, but this isn’t the the way things were just 30 years ago. Visibility back then was frequently reduced by a yellow-brown haze. All the talk was about the inversion layer that on many days hung over the city.

In 1981, for instance, 229 days were rated to be varying degrees of unhealthy on the Air Quality Index.

And then the sky began to lift. In pretty quick order, the numbers reversed themselves to the point that exactly the same number of days – 229 – that had been rated as bad in 1981 were rated as “good” in 2011. The number of days rated unhealthy days has fallen steeply to just 10 or so.

Tucson has the distinction of being the largest metropolitan area in the country to make the American Lung Association’s list of cities with the least small particulate matter suspended in the air.

Fuzzy Memories As To Exactly How

Although memories are a little fuzzy as to the changes made in a previous generation, the remarkable transformation is probably attributable to a variety of factors.

Reduced car emissions and cleaner fuels have played a big role. But numerous other steps were peculiar to Tucson.

Many of the county’s numerous dirt roads were paved. Schoolyards, where dust devils once played, were grassed. Rampant vacant lots were covered over by development. The copper mines south of town were subjected to dust-reducing regulations. The San Manuel smelter, which frequently sent a plume of smoke toward the city, closed.

When despite all of the above, Pima County got slapped in 1999 with a violation for large particulate matter – otherwise known as dust – the county petitioned the EPA to bypass the usual bureaucratic process so it could immediately go to work with the mines, construction companies, and other dirt disturbers to double down on dust abatement.

Beth Gorman, a Pima County air-quality official who has been educating Tucsonans about air pollution since 1990, finds they’re motivated to cooperate.

On the one hand, “air really doesn’t have a constituency,” she says. “People take it for granted even though it is so important to us. We take a breath over 20,000 times a day but very few people think about it.”

Preserving Their Mountain Views

What does matter to Tucsonans, she believes, are their surroundings.

“People really care about that,” she says. “They want to keep the beautiful mountain views.”

They have been helped in this by the city’s slower growth. One can only speculate what would happen if the local economy suddenly got a wind at its back. Could Tucson grow robustly, a la Phoenix, without the sky returning to the days of yore?

As it is, vehicle usage is going up and up. The Pima County Association of Governments estimates that in the early 1990s vehicles in the Tucson area were driven 12.5 million miles a day. That figure is now up to 22 million miles.

As a result, Pima County is brushing right up against the federal standards for ground-level ozone. Having registered three hazardous days, Pima was graded down to a “C” by the American Lung Association. And county officials expect the ride could get even bumpier if the Obama administration further tightens the standards.

Future generations may fondly look back upon this as the time when the mountains could be seen in all their glory. Or maybe, 30 years hence, their memories will once again turn hazy as the skies.

– Richard Gilman

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